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The Benefits and The Perils of Intermittent Fasting

I've had a few conversations about IF lately and as you're probably aware... it's not something I usually recommend.

However... if you're someone who's always struggled with your eating habits and a part of the reason for that is something like "I don't like eating breakfast, I don't particularly like breakfast foods, and I don't feel inclined to prepare one of the meals I do like at 5am when I have to be up and ready for work"... you might be very relieved & reassured to learn that you don't actually HAVE TO eat breakfast at all.

Otherwise, that's the start of your problems, right?

You're trying to get it together and adopt healthier eating habits, but it's only 7am and you've already blown it by failing to eat breakfast like you're supposed to. Well, maybe you can try again next Monday since today is already a write-off.

Forget all that. The CONVENIENT TRUTH is... if you don't want to eat anything until noon, that's fine. But you will need to have a substantial lunch that goes a significant way to towards meeting your energy requirements. Individual requirements vary but you probably want to be thinking 600 - 800 calories for that meal alone.

NEGLECTING to eat breakfast and then trying to get by on a LIGHT lunch is probably going to end badly, but PREFERRING to not eat first thing in the morning and having a SUBSTANTIAL lunch instead could be the beginnings of a suitable & sustainable plan towards long term appropriate eating habits and improved health.

The PROBLEM with "Intermittent Fasting" as a concept though is that it is often presented in a manner that suggests that it is admirable, preferable, virtuous and beneficial to go as long as possible without eating, as a vehicle towards eating as little as possible. In other words, as a proto-anorexic, restrictive fad diet. As if we needed one more of those, am I right?

It is helpful to know that it is not necessary to eat on any schedule other than the one that happens to best suit your personal preferences and schedule. However, this is just as true about “time restricted” eating as it is to “traditional” meal schedules, and if you happen to be someone who likes to eat a bowl of cereal, a slice of toast, or whatever other reasonable choice to start your day... there’s little reason if any to feel obliged to attempt to delay eating until later.


So if Intermittent Fasting is a vehicle towards more confident and consistent eating habits to an appropriate total energy and nutrient intake... that’s good! If it’s a vehicle towards restricting to insufficient intakes, and particularly when it presents such disordered eating as a good and virtuous thing that is beneficial to health, then obviously that’s entirely not good. I hear from a lot of people who may or may not have issues around eating to begin with, who report that what started as "Intermittent Fasting" ended in a prolonged and destructive cycle of restriction and binge eating. That's... that's really not something we want to see happening to people.

Context is everything.

Benefits Specific And Exclusive To Intermittent Fasting.

I keep getting told that I obviously have a poor understanding and am ignorant to the benefits of Intermittent Fasting. Well... it does seem unlikely that I’d ever be wrong about anything related to nutrition (it certainly hasn’t happened so far), but I am always happy to learn.

When people have eating habits that are inappropriate in terms of excessive energy intakes, poor protein & micronutrient provisions, OR erratic shifts between insufficient (due to restriction or neglect) and excessive total intakes... going on ANY diet tends to result in improved health markers in the short term due to more structured eating habits of a not excessive energy intake, with or without weight loss. This is true even of highly misguided diets that omit beneficial choices and likely to result in health complications over the long term.
The benefits people report and credit to Intermittent Fasting occur for the same reason, and not due to delayed and time restricted eating. To prove otherwise, you would require one group of people on a time restricted eating protocol, with the same exercise habits, total energy, protein & fibre intakes as another group eating their meals across the course of the day.

I have been asking people to make me aware of any studies of this nature which found a benefit exclusive to fasting that people eating on a more traditional schedule are missing out on... and so far no one has been forthcoming.

Conversely, this study found that autophagic signalling was activated by exercise in both a continuously fed group and a group following a 36 hour fasting protocol. "Autophagy" being one of the main buzzwords being thrown around as a benefit of fasting protocols.


Further, this study on 5:2 style Intermittent Fasting found poorer long term adherence and poorer outcomes over 12 months compared to working to the same energy intakes on a daily basis. Note too that in this study people got to choose whether to trial the fasting or non fasting approach, rather than having it assigned to them.


In any case... as always... the same as when it was paleo, the same as when it was low carb high fat, low carb healthy fat, ketogenic, and so on and so on... what’s important is that people work on SUSTAINABLE habits based on their own preferences and requirements. You require enough energy to fuel an active lifestyle, enough protein, enough fibre, vitamins and minerals. There’ll be any number of combinations of meal and snack choices, and any number of meal & snack schedules that will facilitate this... but we’re all individuals and rather than working to someone else’s arbitrary set of rules, we need to PRACTICE working to our individual requirements with our individual preferences, on our individual schedules... and we should have the confidence to be able to adjust as necessary whenever our circumstances change.

There have always been fad diets and people who’ve been sucked in by them insisting it has to be done “this specific way” for reasons other than “more consistently adequate but not excessive energy with adequate protein, fibre & micros”, but they have always been wrong, and they’ll always be wrong.
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OK, But Did You Really Ever Feel Like You Were In Your Comfort Zone?

I've had the idea for this graphic in mind for a little while now, and I finally got around to making it the other day. Shortly after, I realised I'd covered this topic about a half dozen times on facebook over the years already.

I suppose the reason for that is that so much of what goes around on social media seems to be on rotation, whether by the same people or new people. Therefore, if you do an image search on "comfort zone", you'll see a bunch of similar images. Similar to each other, that is. Mine is different.

You know the images I'm thinking of, right?
"Here's your comfort zone, now here's where all the magic happens"... variations on that theme. Nothing happens without stepping outside your comfort zone, apparently.

I don't think that's quite right.
For one thing, I don't think people are comfortable to begin with.
For another thing, a lot of these graphics suggest there's "your comfort zone" and then there's "outside the comfort zone" which is where good things happen. For a lot of people, that sounds more like "the panic zone", am I right?

Anyway check out my improved version below.


Like I touched on earlier... it seems to me that a lot of people are confusing "the comfort zone" for something more like "the stagnation zone". When you're frustrated and you feel like you're not getting anywhere and something needs to change... that's not comfort, right?

So, we're actually more comfortable doing something than doing nothing.
But we also do have a quite sensible level of apprehension about feeling overwhelmed and out of our depth, which is what often does keep us stagnant. To my way of thinking, this is why the suggestion that you need to get out of your comfort zone doesn't help.

What I'm trying to suggest is that there's a lot of productive middle ground between doing nothing, and being stressed out trying to do everything all at once, before you're ready for it.

So, your comfort zone actually is doing something.

The progress zone is doing something a little more meaningful, a little more consistently.

In my graphic, I deliberately tried to suggest that it’s a bit of blur and the comfort & progress zones kind of overlap, but to keep making progress you want to get comfortable with doing more, and do more of what you're comfortable with.

What I suggest here though is, if you aint pushing forward, you're going to slip backward. Always be looking to be comfortable with pushing further into the progress zone. What I've attempted to describe before is standing right in the middle of that zone, taking a step forward to do what it takes to make further progress, and then the whole bubble shifts with you so that that's now where you're comfortable, until it's time to take another step forward.

What you'll also notice is a strong barrier between the progress zone and the danger zone. This is for two reasons;

One, you don’t need to do more than you’re comfortable with before you’re comfortable with it.
Two, for a lot of us sometimes once we’re started we need to exercise a little restraint before we start pushing too hard and risk burning out. Especially if we have a history of taking a good thing like pursuing an interest in exercise and practicing mindful eating habits, and taking that to a destructive extreme.
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Specific Goals Require Specific Approaches

More specific goals require more specific actions, approaches, and strategies.

What most people want is some variation on the theme of get stronger, build muscle, lose fat, enjoy what you're doing and feel good about yourself.

That's a fine goal well worth pursuing. But it is actually quite a generic goal. Any decent strength based program with enough of the good stuff will take you a long way towards it. Even a merely half-decent program will take you a long way compared to being inactive.

CONSISTENCY matters though.

If you consistently train from 4 to 6 times per week, you can expect more consistent progress, and to progress further in less time. You'll have a higher energy requirement and more margin for variance as well.

If you intend to train 4 times a week but more often only make it a couple of times... you can't expect the same level or consistency of progress, or to have as high an energy requirement or margin for variance.

So... my observations:

1. People often want to produce a drastic change in condition and appearance without wanting to commit to the intention of turning up consistently enough, &/or working to a suitable strategy. AKA "here's what I want to do and how often I'm prepared to do it, but I won't even do that unless you promise me I'll lose this amount of weight within this amount of time".

In which case... life's not like that.

You need to decide that you're going to do what it actually takes, as often as it actually takes. Otherwise go find someone else who's desperate enough for your money to put up with your shit, you get me?

2. People sometimes have the INTENTION of doing what it takes as often as it takes, but for various reasons it doesn't just doesn't pan out that they're quite so consistent quite so often.

In which case... life's like that sometimes.

Even if you're not quite able to see those changes in condition and appearance, showing up when you can is still of benefit, and is still setting you up for the best chance of good health and a good quality of life as you get older.

Therefore it's better to feel good about what you are doing than to beat yourself up for not doing more. Otherwise you only end up doing less, am I right?

That said though... don't be one of these people who wants and sulks about not being able to have the outcome, when the only thing stopping them is that they simply refuse to adopt the strategy and work consistently towards it.

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Appropriate Total Calories is STILL the most important thing.

Nothing is more important than "Appropriate Total Calories".

Or more accurately, "Appropriate Total Calories With Adequate Protein".

Often and to this day you'll still see people suggesting or even insisting otherwise. It's not calories, it's food quality. It's paleo vs processed. It's inflammation, alkaline pH, whatever else.

Nonsense.

It is Appropriate Total Calories first and foremost.

Very simple logic:
  • The appropriate & required amount of energy intake from whatever choices of foods is going to facilitate better performance and produce better condition than one quarter of that amount.
    That's obvious, surely?
  • The appropriate & required amount of energy intake from whatever choices of foods is going to facilitate better improvements in condition than twice that amount, if you're NOT deliberately "bulking" and deluding yourself that that's an improvement in condition.
    Again that's obvious, surely?
So you could argue that "2000 calories of these foods will not produce the same result as 2000 calories of those foods", but it'd be a hell of a lot more similar than 2000 calories of anything vs 1000 or 3000 calories of anything else. Right?

Now though.

WITHIN that total energy intake, you can make wise strategic choices in the interests of not being deficient in required nutrients, and perhaps also increased Thermal Effect Of Food via higher protein and fibre.

You should also consider any choice that facilitates good & enjoyable, prolonged adherence to the program a wise strategic choice. If that's a chocolate biscuit at supper time so be it.

If total calories are optimal relevant to requirements (or at least, somewhere within an "adequate but not excessive" range), protein is adequate to optimal, fiber is sufficient... if you're including cereal grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts &/or legumes you're likely not deficient in any micronutrients and you therefore have a healthful diet that will facilitate good performance and condition as an adaptation to a good training program.

Of what else there is that people talk about as being "as or more important"... it varies from complete nonsense (paleo, alkalinity, and so on) to stuff that may matter but is impractical to attempt to micromanage, and is likely an unproductive distraction from what is more practical and more productive to focus upon, as described above.
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One diet is as good or as bad as any other.


All things being equal people should see similar if not identical results from any diet.

By "all things" we mean total cals, protein, fibre, and not deficient in any nutrients. If those are matched the results are similar.
  • Over the short term people often lose weight on approaches based on exclusion of food types rather than a focus on total calories or macro targets, but
  • It's usually more a drop in water retention than fat loss, and
  • Repeated attempts at diets which restrict to or result in insufficient calorie intake eventually become ineffectual even in the short term, and
  • Most people who do this stuff remain on a long term trajectory of greater weight gain, poorer relationship with & confidence around eating, with the likelihood of poorer long term health outcomes as well.

Vocal advocates of various dietary tribes on social media often boast of miraculous (and therefore dubious) initial results on various approaches, but... where are all the people from five years ago who should be telling us "see, I've stuck with paleo all this time and it has not steered me wrong". There seems to be very very few of them. Even the ones making their fortune from selling the idea seem to have migrated a few times to increasingly more restrictive diets over the years.

But I digress.

All things being equal, one choice of diet should be as effective as any other IF you can stick to it.

People have good initial results because they adhere well to the diet, because they have decided to believe there is a very good reason why this is the superior choice of diet. Often also they have decided that it makes them smarter and more virtuous than all the unclean masses still eating the foods they've sworn off too.

I wouldn't be so unkind as to suggest they're also people with a poor sense of individuality who's self esteem comes from fitting in well with a tribe rather than with appreciating their own identity and positive attributes.

Long term, they still end up fucked.
Arguably, more fucked than if they'd never dieted to begin with.

So. Is there an answer?
Yes.
  • Adequate but not excessive total calories.
    Not so high that you replenish or add to whatever energy you have in fat stores, but not so little that your body slows down, conserves energy and prioritises fat stores.
  • From more of the foods that you enjoy and would have eaten anyway, plus some of the foods you make the effort to include for the sake of a balanced, inclusive, nutrient sound diet.
The reasons to believe this is the right approach are self explanatory. Anyone sustaining long term success in adhere to any set of eating habits that maintains an improved body condition is doing this, regardless of what it happens to look like or what label they slap on it.

They have an adequate but not excessive energy intake from the approach they believe is the best, or at least the best they can do.

YOUR reasons could also include the rejection of harmful diet culture, rejection of social conditioning and peer pressure to "be on a diet", and to live and feel the way you'd hope anyone you cared about would live and feel.

That's what I think anyway.
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